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Friction Between East Bank Arabs and Palestinians Tests Hussein

July 24, 1988|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan — A few weeks ago, the son of a prominent Amman couple was shot and wounded by a Jordanian soldier stationed as a security guard outside one of the foreign missions here.

That the young man was "cruising" Amman in the family Mercedes Benz, which is something of a national pastime among the offspring of the affluent here, at the time of the shooting was enough to set tongues wagging in the Jordanian capital. But what really caused a stir was that the soldier is from Jordan's so-called East Bank, while the wounded man's family is of Palestinian origin.

Similarly, a small fire at the University of Jordan might normally have passed without much notice. But a few weeks ago, professors at the university say, a blaze destroyed a display of Palestinian folklore. The cause of the fire was listed as arson.

As such examples illustrate, tensions between Jordanians from the East Bank and Palestinians living in Jordan are high, perhaps higher than they have been in decades. Ironically, the friction comes after seven months of troubles in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, at a time when throughout the Arab world, sympathy for the Palestinians is at an all-time high.

The intercommunal tensions are just one of a number of serious new problems that have cropped up for Jordan's King Hussein since the start of the Palestinian uprising last December, contributing to a deep sense of unease in the country after more than a decade of prosperity.

Perhaps the most significant concern for the Jordanian king, who has reigned for 35 years, is a sudden spate of reports from Israel and from supporters of the Jewish state suggesting that Jordan is increasingly viewed as a possible homeland for Palestinians now living under Israeli occupation.

The idea was first raised by Israel's far right and dismissed. But since the start of the Palestinian uprising, discussion of the so-called transfer option--in effect the deportation of all or most of the West Bank's 750,000 Arab residents--has reached a serious stage. According to Western diplomats, such talk has left the Jordanians deeply fearful.

At the same time, Jordan has been gripped by its worst economic crisis in years, according to Jordanian officials and bankers. Jordan's currency, the dinar, has been hit by panic selling twice in the past two months, after the central bank was stuck with $600 million in bad debt from Iraq and refused to issue new credit to exporters.

The crisis has passed, but economists see major troubles looming, because the two key components of Jordan's national budget--remittances from Jordanians abroad and Arab aid--are decreasing. Out of a $3-billion annual budget, only $500 million is financed from home.

One Western economist said that remittances such as salaries earned by Jordanians working in the oil-rich Persian Gulf states will probably decline sharply in the second half of the year. At the same time, a high Jordanian official said that Saudi Arabia, which provides $500 million a year alone, is upset over reports of official corruption and is reluctant to offer new assistance.

"The indicators are all negative," said one economist. "The Jordanians are going to have to tighten their belts substantially if they hope to weather the crisis."

At a summit meeting of Arab leaders in Algiers last month, Hussein made an impassioned plea for stepped-up assistance for so-called confrontation states bordering Israel, such as Jordan and Syria. While expressing sympathy, the Arabs made no concrete offers.

Hussein has also suffered a decline in prestige as a result of the Palestinian uprising, which has left him the weakest player in the Middle East, even as it has strengthened the hand of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

For example, the Algiers summit voted an initial aid package of $120 million, according to Jordanian officials. But the money was earmarked for the PLO directly. In the past, funds for the West Bank and Gaza were doled out by a joint PLO-Jordanian committee.

Arafat has publicly snubbed the king by promising to visit Amman and then staying away, traveling to such remote locales as Somalia instead. In Arab political terms, this is seen as Arafat's way of humiliating Hussein for the insults that Arafat has endured in recent years.

Jordan's relationship with the Palestinians has been uneven at best virtually since 1948, when the United Nations partitioned British-ruled Palestine and created Israel.

After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan annexed the West Bank. Although only two countries, Britain and Pakistan, recognized Jordan's annexation, the Amman government ruled the West Bank and East Jerusalem until the 1967 Middle East War.

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